Thinking About the Elgin Marbles

In the early nineteenth century, a British Lord removed much of the sculpture from the Parthenon and shipped it to England. Housed in the British Museum and named after their exporter, the Elgin Marbles have become a source of international controversy. The Greeks wish to see the Marbles returned to the Acropolis and their position is supported by a growing movement seeking the repatriation of cultural property. The Elgin Marbles are representative of the many works of art in the world’s museums and private collections that could be subject to repatriation. Rejecting the emotional appeal of the Greek position, Professor Merryman analyzes the controversy and the proper disposition of the Marbles on reasoned, principled grounds. He concludes that the Greeks do not have a legal claim to the Marbles and that moral arguments fail to justify the return of the Marbles to Greece. Professor Merryman then turns to general principles that should govern the allocation of cultural property. He rejects cultural nationalism as a basis for the disposition of the Marbles, because cultural nationalism expresses dubious values and is founded on sentiment. The concerns of cultural internationalism – preservation, integrity, and distribution/ access – do not clearly support the Greek position. Under the general principle of repose, the Elgin Marbles should remain in the British Museum until the Greek government can offer more compelling reasons for their return